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‘No illusions about depth of religious fault lines’: PM Lee on need to manage inter-religious relations in Singapore

The proliferation of social media is one reason why the Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act will be amended, says Mr Lee Hsien Loong.

‘No illusions about depth of religious fault lines’: PM Lee on need to manage inter-religious relations in Singapore

The IRO’s 70th anniversary exhibition traces the organisation’s work over the years to promote interfaith harmony.

SINGAPORE: There is a need to continue managing religious harmony in Singapore, given the prevailing trends towards “intolerance, extremism and inter-religious strife” in the region as well as the proliferation of social media making it easier for people to cause offence, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong on Monday (Aug 26).

Speaking at the Inter-Religious Organisation’s (IRO) 70th anniversary dinner, Mr Lee said Singapore, too, had experienced religious strife in the past but “enormous progress” to build mutual trust and confidence has been made in the decades since independence.

READ: Singapore must be ‘deeply committed’ to preserving racial and religious harmony, says DPM Heng

However, this does not mean the country allows “unfettered and rambunctious” discussion on religion, or worse, provocative or blasphemous cartoons, performances and videos, he said, adding that it is unlikely to do so for “a very long time to come”.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong speaking at the IRO's 70th anniversary gala dinner. ​​​​​​​

The Prime Minister also pointed to developments in the region to highlight the issue, saying that prevailing trends are towards intolerance, extremism and inter-religious strife.

He cited the example of Sri Lanka, where Buddhists, Hindus and Muslims had a long history of peaceful co-existence, but since its independence in 1949, the country has been riven by ethnic and religious tensions, conflict and violence.

A series of bomb blasts on Apr 21 that tore through churches and hotels killed at least 290 people in Sri Lanka. Many of the victims were worshippers attending Easter services.  

Mr Lee said: “We have no illusions about the depths of the religious fault lines in our society, and the harm that will befall us if we neglect to manage them.”

READ: Singapore’s religious harmony law to be updated, says K Shanmugam

This is why the Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act was passed in 1990 to set the ground rules for all groups, he said. The Government has never had to invoke its powers but the existence of the law has helped to maintain peace and harmony here, he added.

That said, the situation has changed since the law’s inception. The proliferation of social media, for one, has made it easier for people to cause offence through spreading vitriol and falsehoods, and for others to take offence, the Prime Minister said.

As such, amendments to the law will be tabled in Parliament next week to allow the authorities to deal with new threats “comprehensively and in a timely manner”, he said, adding that religious leaders have been widely consulted and the Government is “very grateful” for their support.


Besides legislation, Mr Lee also called on leaders to be “broad-minded and enlightened” and set an example for others to spread the message of tolerance and understanding.

The younger IRO leaders, for example, have been doing this as they reach out to non-religious groups and networks that are also promoting inter-faith dialogues, he said. They are also tackling difficult questions about the role and relevance of religion in Singapore’s society, including holding forums that discuss issues like atheism, he said.

Mr Lee also took time to praise the contributions and guidance of the older leaders, as they have seen and experienced what can go wrong if misunderstandings arise and thus can speak out with conviction.

One example is the late Singapore president SR Nathan, who served as the IRO’s patron from 2012 to 2016 and was honoured posthumously on Monday.

Mr Lee said Mr Nathan will always be remembered for caring deeply about building a harmonious society.

“He exemplified what the IRO stood for, was passionate about the IRO’s mission and provided invaluable advice and wisdom,” he said.

Mrs Nathan, who attended the dinner, accepted the award on behalf of her late husband.

Source: CNA/kk


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